Video: Huntsman to be U.S. ambassador to China

NBC News and news services
updated 5/16/2009 8:20:26 PM ET 2009-05-17T00:20:26

President Barack Obama reached across the political divide Saturday and named Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a potential Republican presidential contender in 2012, to the sensitive diplomatic post of U.S. ambassador to China.

Fluent in Mandarin Chinese from his days as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan, the 49-year-old Huntsman is a popular two-term governor who served in both Bush administrations. He has made a name for himself advocating a moderate agenda in one of the nation's most conservative states.

Huntsman made headlines recently for encouraging the Republican Party to swing in a more moderate direction if it wanted to bounce back from the 2008 elections, angering some conservatives.

Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, said Huntsman is a Republican who "seems to understand the party has to adjust — not stubbornly believe that everything is OK and it is the country that has to change."

Huntsman's positions have led some to consider him a potential contender for president in 2012.

But Obama's decision to name him ambassador probably rules out the possibility he would run in 2012, writes NBC's First Read. As Politico notes, it's the equivalent of George W. Bush hiring John Edwards or Hillary Clinton in 2001-2002.

Huntsman has been active on environmental issues. He signed an initiative that would set a regional cap-and-trade effort to reduce global warming. And in a 2006 speech at Shanghai Normal University, Huntsman spoke of the need for China and the U.S. to work together to protect the environment.

"The United States and China must be good examples and stewards of the Earth. We must match economic progress with environmental stewardship. The effects of industrialization are felt worldwide," Huntsman said then.

Liquor laws
Throughout his tenure as governor, Huntsman's background as a diplomat has been evident. He preferred to win over opponents in private meetings rather than using his bully pulpit to give rousing speeches.

Video: Obama picks ambassador, cheers daughters at game One of his most significant achievements was loosening the state's restrictive liquor laws over the objections of many in heavily Mormon Utah in an effort to make the state more appealing for visitors. It was a feat many here didn't think would be possible in Huntsman's lifetime.

Huntsman has drawn the most attention for stating he favors civil unions for gay couples even though he backed a state constitutional amendment passed in 2004 that prohibited same-sex marriage.

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Huntsman's comments on civil unions drew the ire of conservatives in Utah and elsewhere.

Officials in Michigan last month canceled a GOP county fundraiser where Huntsman was to speak; they said he had abandoned important party principles.

'Bipartisan appointment'
Huntsman's career began as a staff assistant in the Ronald Reagan administration and he also served as ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and as a deputy U.S. trade representative and U.S. trade ambassador under President George W. Bush.

Utah's only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, said he was pleased with the appointment. "It's a great bipartisan appointment by the president," he said.

Before becoming governor in 2005, Huntsman made millions serving as chairman and chief executive of his family chemical company.

If confirmed by the Senate, Huntsman will succeed Clark Randt as U.S. ambassador to China.

Randt, a classmate of former President George W. Bush at Yale University, served as Washington's top envoy to Beijing from July 2001 until January, making him the longest-serving U.S. ambassador to China since the two nations established diplomatic ties.

Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert would become governor until a special election in 2010.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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